Strategists to Republicans: Restrain yourselves on debt-ceiling negotiations

GOP strategists are urging restraint in the upcoming debt-ceiling fight.

They are excited by the prospect of reclaiming the Senate in November’s midterms elections but anxious about the party’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, as amply illustrated in recent campaign cycles.

Congress must vote to raise the $17 trillion debt ceiling sometime in February or March. In the past, Republicans have looked to extract

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major concessions, such as dollar-for-dollar spending cuts. 

The strategy bore fruit in 2011 when President Obama, with an eye toward securing reelection, signed the Budget Control Act, which included $2 trillion in cuts.

But now the president is refusing to negotiate on the debt ceiling and the GOP is still feeling the reverberations from a 16-day government shutdown in October that wreaked havoc on the party’s public approval while reaping almost nothing in exchange. 

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That has many in the party looking to go small this time around, arguing that the top priority must be locking up electoral gains in November. Those gains, they say, could pave the way to the attainment of many big policy goals.

“What Republicans have to realize [is] the political winds are in our direction. We can’t risk changing the winds at this stage,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “You can shut down the Obama agenda completely if you have the Senate.”

A GOP decision on the debt ceiling is likely to come out of the annual House retreat scheduled for Jan. 29 in Maryland. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has told Congress he expects the government could be in danger of missing payments by early March, giving lawmakers a narrow window to find another borrowing boost.

“The only way you lose the House is if Dems intercept a Hail Mary pass on the debt ceiling,” another GOP strategist said. “If you lose the House, you open the door to everything.”

At the same time, GOP tacticians acknowledge that the party cannot look weak in the debt ceiling fight and simply grant the president the “clean” hike he wants. Furthermore, the timing of the fight means members facing conservative primary challenges will face a tough dilemma.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in December that the party would not accept “nothing” for the debt ceiling and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he could not imagine a clean increase.

Tea Party and outside conservative groups said this week they are still formulating their approach. Feisty outside groups have helped pull congressional Republicans to the right in several past battles, but  they came under intraparty criticism — most notably from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — for pushing the GOP into the ill-fated shutdown fight over ObamaCare.

With the debt limit looming as the next battleground, conservative forces are still looking for a policy win, but are not drawing any lines in the sand.

“Conservatives have the expectation that the debt ceiling is an important tool to reduce the size and scope of the government,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation. “That’s what conservatives are going to be looking for…that’ll be the expectation from conservative voters.”

Even so, Holler acknowledged that no clear overall strategy has crystallized around the debt limit yet.

Some conservatives, however, are sounding as combative as ever.

Tea Party conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) made light of the warnings coming from those who are urging the party to wait until after the election before fighting on the debt again.

“It’s the same ones that you always hear….cower in the corner and wait,” he said. “If Republicans want to win, we need to show what we stand for.”

Huelskamp said he wants to push for a limitation that no new debt would be used to fund ObamaCare.

But that kind of talk discomfits many strategists. One said that the GOP ought to try to focus media attention solely on the failings of ObamaCare, or on other hot-button electoral issues.

“I want it to be whatever is bothering swing voters the most, their core complaint,” the long-time strategist said. “It has to be something that is not extreme, so even CBS News cannot say Republicans are making extreme threats.”

Mark McKinnon of Hill and Knowlton Strategies said the “equation is pretty clear."

“When Republicans screw with the debt ceiling and threaten a government shutdown, their unfavorable ratings go up. When they talk about Obamacare, Democrats’ unfavorables go up,” he said.

The GOP demands are likely to be small, a former top GOP aide now on K Street said. That’s because conservative lawmakers and Republicans feeling primary heat will be unlikely to back any debt-limit boost,meaning House Republicans will probably need some Democrats to come to their side.

“Members are going to be very close to their primaries by the time they vote on something in mid-to-late February,” the former aide said.  “Anyone voting for that who has a contested primary will be in trouble. Meaning, leadership will need a healthy number of Dem votes….[so] it has to be very small ball.”

“Most Republicans see that the shutdown was a mistake, and that there is more pragmatism in dealing with the debt ceiling,” said strategist Ron Bonjean.

Meanwhile, a financial sector long weary of the debt-limit wars is a bit more optimistic that this latest battle will not serve as another threat to the global financial system.

One senior financial services executive said recent comments from Republican leaders playing down the potential for another government shutdown have helped ease fears on Wall Street.

McConnell has flatly ruled out a second shutdown, and Boehner’s harsh criticisms of outside groups make it obvious that he, too, would have little tolerance for such an approach.

“The leadership…have made that point emphatically clear,” said the executive. “That’s an early signal we could be in for a smoother path this spring.”

This executive also said he has heard unanimous agreement on Capitol Hill that this upcoming debt limit fight should be the last before the 2014 midterm elections. Neither side is interested in dredging up the fight again as voters tune in.

“There’s not an appetite to do this twice this year,” he said. “There’s enough responsible members that know that putting that scenario forward…that’s just fraught with turmoil.”